In the lead-up to the March 31 release of our Peculiar Edition of Nephi Anderson’s novel Dorian we will be running a series of posts featuring the first paragraph (and one other paragraph of the editor’s whim) from the essays included in that volume. Come back for more every Tuesday and Thursday.
At the time of his 6 January 1923 death, Nephi Anderson was the premier man of letters in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His friend, Church President Heber J. Grant, credited his writing for making “a financial success” of one of the Church’s official magazines, the Improvement Era, which had published Anderson’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for more than twenty years. Indeed, three months before his death, Anderson received an admiring letter from Grant telling him “that there are few, if any, of the writers to the Improvement Era that I feel more grateful to than your dear self for the many contributions which you have made to our splendid little magazine” (Grant). This praise was echoed in Anderson’s two-page obituary in the Improvement Era which called him “a gifted writer of fiction” who “always provided clean stories permeated by the spirit of the gospel” (“Nephi Anderson” 373 – 375). Another obituary, published on the front page of the Box Elder News, claimed that Anderson’s novel Added Upon had been “read by almost every person in the state” of Utah (“Called by Death” 1)….
Cracroft’s positive appraisal of Dorian is a welcome reprieve from the criticisms of Anderson’s detractors, yet his lamentation for what might have been distracts in some ways from what the novel was and continues to be for Latter-day Saints and their fiction. Reading it today, nearly one hundred years later, it is easy to see that Dorian was not only a generally successful aesthetic production and a milestone in Mormon literary realism, but also a statement of identity for Mormons in the early twentieth century, particularly young Mormons whose task it was to take the Church into the future. As one reviewer pointed out in the January 1922 issue of the Improvement Era, the novel provided “boys and girls” with “a class of reading which [aimed] to teach the way of righteousness in attractive story form” (“Editor’s Table” 361). Its Horatian mixture of entertainment and instruction, in other words, could serve as a vehicle for shaping Mormon character, clarifying cultural boundaries, and teaching correct gospel principles. To a Mormon community still in the process of steadying itself from the institutional trauma of the Woodruff Manifesto, the 1890 edict that signaled the beginning of the end of the group-defining practice of Mormon polygamy, Dorian served as a kind of guidebook for performing twentieth-century Mormon identity.